Sipho Ncube is a widow who lives with her three children and elderly mother in Dabula West, a village in southwestern Zimbabwe. Back in 2004, Sipho was selected by Catholic Relief Services and our local partner, the Organization for Rural Associations for Progress, to receive assistance from a small livestock pilot project paid for initially by the U.S. government and now by the U.K. government. The aim of the initiative is to help extremely poor families lift themselves out of poverty by giving them goats, pigs and poultry to build household wealth.
When the project started, Sipho had no livestock of her own, so she was very excited to select one goat and two chickens at a CRS-supported livestock fair. The goat Sipho selected was pregnant and soon gave birth to a female kid. Sipho continued to breed her livestock, and by the end of 2005, her family had five goats. The chickens also reproduced quickly with good care and proper housing, and with Sipho using techniques she learned from project staff. At the beginning of 2005, the family had 120 birds.
Small Livestock Serve as Steppingstones to Wealth
At the beginning of the project, some community members questioned the decision to give poor households access to small livestock instead of cattle, which are more valuable and were being distributed by other organizations. CRS staff explained that families were expected to buy larger stock like cattle and donkeys on their own after breeding and selling the small livestock, which reproduce much more rapidly. Chickens and goats are also easier and cheaper to care for—important factors for villagers who were often caring for livestock for the first time in their lives.
"Had it been cattle that were distributed, most of the women that benefited from this program would not have received anything, as the program would have been hijacked by men," Sipho says with a laugh. Traditionally in Zimbabwe, men are considered to be the owners of family cattle; when a husband dies, his cattle are given to his brothers' families, leaving his surviving wife and children typically with just the smaller livestock like goats and chickens.
In early 2006, an outbreak of fowl pox hit Dabula West. Sipho realized that she needed to sell her chickens quickly before she lost them to disease. She also knew she needed to find something else to invest in so she wouldn't squander her earnings.
Sipho sold 100 chickens to teachers and others in her community, as well as to visitors passing through. She also sold five goats (leaving her with one) to have enough money to purchase a heifer offered to her by another community member. In late 2006, she was extremely proud to own her first cow.
Reduced Dependency on Food Aid
"For the first time, my children and I drank milk from our own cow," Sipho explains. Because her cow kept breaking out of the corral, a relative brought over two of her cattle to keep Sipho's heifer company. This led to a male calf in June 2007. Then in November 2008, Sipho's cow gave birth again—this time to a female calf.
"Now I have three cows to my name. I no longer qualify for vulnerable group feeding or general feeding," Sipho says, pleased to no longer require emergency food rations. "My children now eat healthy food as we are getting about four liters [1 gallon] of milk from the cow per day." She adds that she believes that her success in breeding livestock is the result of looking after her livestock as if they were her children.
Resiliency in Crisis
In 2008, Zimbabwe experienced severe food shortages. Sipho's family wasn't spared, but during the worst months she was able to exchange seven more goats and 30 chickens for seven buckets of corn.
"Thanks to my small livestock, I was able to see my family through the drought period. I managed much better than those who did not have livestock," Sipho explains. "At least I didn't reach a point where I had to sell any one of my cattle, as this would have been very painful for my family."
Disease, particularly fowl pox, has continued to pose challenges over the years. Other farmers taught Sipho to add aloe vera or chilies to her chickens' drinking water to protect them from the illness. Once, Sipho had to sell two chickens to buy medicine to stop an outbreak of diarrhea among the rest of her flock.
Sipho now owns three cows, five goats and 19 chickens. She is hopeful that this year will be an even better year for her and her family. Her plan is to keep breeding and selling her livestock so she can build a nice brick house for her family. Sipho's success—and that of thousands of other families assisted by CRS' small livestock projects in Zimbabwe—proves that the gift of just a few small animals, along with husbandry training, can help families eradicate household poverty.
Pride Magwali is CRS Zimbabwe's project advisor for livestock and food security, based in Bulawayo.